Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Corporate ownership is killing the free press
So, I've been working for a newspaper owned by Gannett. Yes, Gannett. The largest media company in the country. Gannett bought our local paper about five years ago. And since then? Oy.
I started out as a general assignment reporter. Basically, that means I wrote a little bit of everything. Which was very cool, since I like a little bit of everything. From that, I moved to writing about courts and crime, then on to the online division where I've been for the last three years.
When I started in 2000, we had a full newroom -- 10 full-time reporters and three full-time photographers, plus a photo editor who took pix part-time. Everyone was busy, but not too stressed because we had enough people to carry the load. Since our paper covers 13 parishes (aka - counties), we had two reporters assigned to do nothing by parish reporting. We had a separate reporter for police and courts. We had fulltime business reporters, fulltime government reporters, someone to handle military news specifically. It was a nice spread, so no one was overwhelmed.
Then, Gannett bought us. I'd never worked for them before and, being new to the business, had no real idea what they were like. But...three reporters who had been in the business much longer and had worked for Gannett before left within six months of us being sold. They left specifically because we'd been bought. This should have been a clue.
At first, things were fine. Not a lot of change. Then we got a new person here, a new on there. We were slowly being brought inline with corporate standards. Okay. Fine. Then, one of our city reporters left. No one was hired to fill her spot, her workload was simply shifted to the other city reporter. Then another reporter left. They too were not replaced, their work simply passed on to someone else. This kept happening, until now we're down to four reporters. From 10 to 4 in six years. With the same workload. People are completely overworked, stressed and ready to scream. No one has time to do their own projects, plus they're always being pulled away to do special projects -- which they also have time for. What happens in a situation like this? People start to make mistakes, issues get just surface coverage, things get missed. The reporters want to do their job, they want to be able to give things the coverage and depth they deserve, but they just don't have time.
The other thing they did when they took over is give everyone a pay raise. Yay! Except -- after that there were no pay raises for three years. For three years, no pay raises and increasing insurance prices. You do the math. So, even when they were looking for new reporters, they couldn't get anyone to take the jobs because the pay is too awful.
Then there are the constant changes to the paper itself. We're a smalltown paper, focused on community news. Except there's a corporate way to do those stories. They want them all to look the same, follow the same format, be streamlined. There's a one-size fits all approach, regardless of where the paper is in the country, what the community is like, whatever. It must follow the Gannett format or it won't be done. Which means, often, that what the reporters actually write is changed by the editors before it goes into the paper. I lost count of the number of times I would write a story, go home and the next morning when I read the paper the story didn't look a damned thing like what I had written. Quotes would be changed, or the writing around it would be changed to suggest a different meaning, there would be things added that I hadn't reported -- but my name was on the thing, so I was the one who got bitched at when people started calling to complain.
I've seen two reporters (people of color too, so when they left our newsroom was lily white again) driven out of their jobs, when it was unwarranted. These were people who were good at their job but were overworked to the point where they couldn't keep up. They'd asked for more time, they'd asked to have their concerns addressed but were dismissed instead. I've seen a paper that was once about twice its current size shrunk slowly, with the type shrinking and the number of ad pages going up while the space devoted to news is whittled away. I've seen freaking advertising on the front page. I've seen the focus go from doing good news reporting to watching the bottom line. News has become a commodity to be bought and sold.
Everytime someone says the media is liberal I just want to laugh. No, no it's not. It's decidedly conservative. Now, most reporters are liberals. They're also mostly professional enough not to let that totally color a story. Editors and publishers, however, tend to be conservative and they're the ones who decide what actually makes it into the paper and what gets covered in the first place. Here's a good rule of thumb: the more money they make, the more conservative they are.
There is a pretense at balance, but the fact is, it's not in the corporate interests to really rock the boat too much. Sure, there are certain flagship publications that have the OK to be a bit risk-taking, but for most of us? No way. Follow the formula or find another job.
Which pisses me off, because the reporters I know are vastly talented and driven. They want to dig deep, they want to expose lies, they want to serve the public trust but they are blocked at almost every turn by corporate policy that cowtows to the money makers.
So, please. Give reporters a break? Throw stones at the editors and publishers, but reporters are honestly doing their best to do their job.